It is striking that in the various profiles and news reports that have been written in the past few weeks about Mario Draghi, governor of the Bank of Italy and just-nominated European Central Bank chieftain – at least until he got knocked off the front page by that other head of a three-letter financial institution, Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the IMF – pretty much all of them mention his dress sense and then attribute it to his nationality.
Consider: “We can’t dispense with the Italian cliché altogether – Mr Draghi is always beautifully dressed.” (The Independent); “Nonetheless, he is a fastidious dresser: he buys all his shirts from the same tailor and, no matter how cold the weather, is never seen in public with a coat over his impeccable, black, tailor-made suits. In his dress sense, if nothing else, he is very Italian.” (Reuters). Even the FT, in a Man in the News profile, noted the “Made-in-Italy” banker was “impeccably dressed”.
This is striking because in almost every other way, Draghi is described as palpably un-Italian: the fact he got his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that he worked at Goldman Sachs, that he is a consensus builder and a pragmatist, all seem to be interpreted as indicating a less parochial, more globalised world view. Indeed, the dress stuff is generally cited as an anomaly – the telling detail – along the lines of “Wow! He may not seem Italian but check out his clothes.”
And it is striking because generally bankers’ dress – especially public bankers’ dress – is not ascribed to country of origin.
George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, for example, is never described as looking sartorially English (though he is occasionally described as looking like an English schoolboy) – despite a penchant for Savile Row suits. Neither is Tim Geithner generally viewed as an example of American Wall Street dressing; nor is Ben Bernanke for that matter. Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, is not characterised as a “French” dresser. Even Draghi’s erstwhile rival Axel Weber, ex-president of the Bundesbank, is not described as wearing “German-looking” suits (what that be, anyway?).
Which makes me wonder: is this because there isn’t really a national dress norm for financiers from most countries, or does the clothes-focus have to do with Draghi himself?
The answer probably is a little bit of both. Certainly, the sartorial stereotype of an American male has more to do with denim and T-shirts (and Marlboro men, and maybe George W. Bush and his cowboy boots) than suits. Yes, there were the Gordon Gekko red-suspenders-Hermès-animal-tie years but, along with the boxy blue Brooks Brothers cliché, such images seem more fad than national style; Brooks Bros, after all, is doing a roaring trade in slim suits these days.
Similarly, when poking fun at German dress, the cliché talks about socks and sandals; when French, it’s green suits and brown shoes. Even in the myriad hagiographies of Michel Pébereau, chairman of BNP Paribas, who has just announced his retirement, aesthetics and musings on French self-presentation are notably absent. So what is it about Draghi?
According to his communications office, Draghi wears tailored dark navy suits (they say Reuters was wrong in calling them black), white shirts and black shoes, carries a black briefcase and never, ever, wears an overcoat. His consistency seems to indicate real thought, an active relationship to clothing that is viewed as characteristic of Italian men. Granted, for many years Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister, was also notably consistent in dress but he was consistently rumpled too, so it seemed less a statement about style than efficiency.
Add to Draghi’s aesthetics the no-coat rule, which an Italy-based colleague describes as a signal that he is “always ready to move”, and it is hard not to think Draghi may be making a point of some kind with his clothing; using it to present himself as having a value system not dissimilar to that of his fellow countrymen. It is tempting, thus, to see his clothing as costume, a rather clever means to manipulate his image, so that while his lips may be saying un-jingoistic words, his suit is saying, “But I am one of you!”
This may be, in fact, why when the German newspaper Bild was covering Angela Merkel’s decision to back Draghi for the ECB post, they doctored a photo to put a Prussian helmet on the Italian’s head, thus co-opting his own sartorial strategy.
Is Draghi really that Machiavellian? Or is he, rather, a victim of national stereotyping? Italy is, after all, one of the birthplaces of the men’s wear industry, perhaps the only home of great global men’s brands (as opposed to Savile Row’s über-tailors) that – and this is key – aren’t famous because they also have a woman’s line, and are happy to focus solely on the man. Think, for example, of Zegna and Pal Zileri. It’s the one country where men are supposed to care about their clothes; therefore it is the country where we look most closely at the clothes that men wear.
In the end, it may be a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg question. Which came first: the banker or the cliché?
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman